In one of the underground storage rooms of The Alcor Life Extension Foundation there is a large tank of liquid nitrogen set in a room of its own. A body is left inside to freeze at -196°C, and it stays in the basement, untouched and undisturbed, for many, many years.
Twenty years after Byun Baekhyun’s death, there is a breakthrough in the medical field. It could be the beginnings of finding the cure for cancer! the press says, and the public all wait with bated breaths. The concept is developed, and it is met with many challenges and fails, and twice it is almost abandoned. But eleven years after the initial idea was formed, scientists from Germany proudly announces to the world the discovery of the cure for cervical cancer. The world rejoices and soon after many more medication is found. But it’s not until almost a whole century later is the cure for bone marrow cancer properly developed, and then later discovered.
Ninety-two years after 27th March 2016, the tank that holds Baekhyun’s body is brought out of the basement for the very first time, and scientists far and wide have very high hopes for the result of this experiment.
They couldn’t do it all at once, of course. First they take away the ultra-cold liquid nitrogen and replace it with hydrogen sulfide that is a little warmer, and leave the body in it for a while; at the same time also slowly reducing the deep freeze vitrification chemicals inside the blood system, little by little. And then they replace the hydrogen sulfide with dry ice, and then finally, water ice.
The whole process takes about two years and when they get to the water ice stage, the scientists in charge with the project start injecting the medication for Multiple myeloma straight into the centre of the bones, killing the destructive cells and stimulating growth of new marrows. When that’s done and finished, they move the body out of the ice and into water of warmer temperature, the temperature getting higher and higher until it reaches room temperature. Then the body is moved out into open air and resuscitation begins.
5th June 2112, Byun Baekhyun starts breathing again.
It’s not until a week later that he opens his sleep-crusted eyes, blinking rapidly to clear the cloud in his head. His tongue feels like cotton inside his mouth, dry and heavy and useless, and when he turns his head there’s a young man sitting on a chair beside his bed, playing with a hologram, 3D model of a molecule from a tablet computer in his lap. He’s wearing a fur trimmed jacket and shiny vinyl pants, and there are dark bags under his eyes. His gaze is blank although his brows are furrowed in concentration.
But that’s too much information to handle his brain that had been in a coma for almost a century, so all he registers is that the boy is wearing all black attires, and he also wears a lot of bracelets and ear-piercing in many sizes and shapes.
The stranger turns to him suddenly, dark gaze piercing though still frighteningly empty.
“Your name is Byun Baekhyun, born 6th May 1992, you were a scientist, and had been cryopreserved since 2016. You had Multiple myeloma but it is now cured, and you were your own experiment.”
Baekhyun whimpers weakly and closes his eyes as his brain attempts to absorb the information thrown at him out of the blue, but the memories of his own identity slowly trickles back. When he opens them again, the stranger is already standing next to his bed. Baekhyun had not heard him move.
“I am Huang Zitao. I am in charge of you,” the boy -- Zitao -- says. It’s a nice name, Baekhyun thinks, although it sounds foreign.
“What... year is it now?” Baekhyun’s dry, parched throat hurts just from the short sentence and he winces, sinking back into the bed.
“Two thousand one hundred and twelve.” Zitao’s answers are short and robotic, and it vaguely unnerves Baekhyun. There is no emotion underlying the words, nothing that his still-weak hearing can detect anyway. He opens his mouth to ask another question but Zitao beats him to it. “You have been in cryopreservation for ninety four years. Now rest. More information and your brain will collapse. I will get you your depressants.”
Baekhyun regains consciousness again the next day, and this time he doesn’t feel so weak anymore. There’s no one in the room, so Baekhyun tries to move his body little by little, testing them out as if the limbs are new and wasn’t his own.
He twitches his fingers, curls and uncurls his palms repeatedly and is delighted to find that he could do so without much difficulty. He moves the pads of his fingers against the fabric of the sheets, and the nerve endings tingle after being dead for so long.
Next he raises an arm, and this one is harder to do. Baekhyun’s brows furrows in concentration as he struggles to lift his arm, the once broken one, to his face. It’s now mended perfectly, the skin still taut and supple without a trace of wrinkles even though he’s technically one hundred and eighteen years old.
Baekhyun laughs weakly and turns his head to the side, where a large mirror is fixed to the wall. His face is still the same, though not unhealthy and ashen like the day he had died, although he’s still fairly skinny from lack of real food. At least his cheekbones no longer jut out sharply against his face anymore, cheeks not so hollow.
“You shouldn’t be moving.”
The voice surprises Baekhyun. He loses control on his arm and it drops to the bed by his side again. Zitao is by the doorway, eyes narrowed as he walks to where Baekhyun lays, steps quiet and unnaturally so. Baekhyun had not even heard him open the door.
“How... do you do that?” Baekhyun asks as Zitao settles on the chair next to his bed.
Although Baekhyun’s question wasn’t very specific, Zitao knows, anyway. “Everyone walks like this. Moves without a sound. It is one of the many things humans have learnt to do since your time.”
The answer startles Baekhyun, but Zitao doesn’t elaborate anymore. That’s right, he had lived a century ago. Surely many things have changed.
“I have constructed various therapies for you so you can become optimal again, mentally and physically,” the boy says, taking out a tablet computer seemingly out of nowhere. He’s wearing all black again, but had swapped the many jingling bracelets to various chains and necklaces that hang on his neck. “Now you might have realized that your broken bones have mended but you’re still weak. Your memories and everything you know is forgotten and stored away for now, but they will come back to you eventually, with the help of these therapies.”
Baekhyun searches around in his brain for some, any kind knowledge that he brought from his past life but finds nothing except the things Zitao told him. To his surprise, he’s only mildly disturbed by the revelation. What he worries about more is who Zitao really is.
“You said... you are in charge of me,” Baekhyun starts, and clears his throat when his voice starts being croaky again. “What are you?”
“I am a scientist, just like you. I am the head of this project.” Zitao doesn’t even look up from his tablet.
“You’re so... young.”
Zitao finally looks up at the statement, eyes narrowing. “I guess everyone is ‘so young’ for you since you’re one hundred and eighteen years old, but I’m nineteen.”
“Nineteen!?” Baekhyun’s exclaimed loudly, shocked. How could this kid be the one in charge of a project as big and important as this?
“The youngest person in our team is eleven years old,” Zitao’s answer is short and clipped, and Baekhyun feels like fainting. “You must remember that this is a different world. Humans reach maturity quicker. I hear that people long ago are only considered proper adults at the age of thirty or forty?” When Baekhyun nods numbly, he raises his shoulders faintly. “So old. Nowadays, adulthood is reached at the age of fifteen or sixteen.”
Baekhyun laughs at the new information but it sounds more like a whimper. “Okay. Alright, so, what are we doing now?”
“We’ll start with your motoric skills,” Zitao’s posture straightens even more, if it is even possible. “Looks like your facial muscles are working just fine, and your hands are okay. Try to lift your arms now, slowly does it, one by one.”
All in all, the little exercises he does that day makes Baekhyun feel like a toddler again, learning about the world. He’s a little ashamed at himself, having to relearn all the simple actions he could have done with such ease a hundred years ago. But Zitao doesn’t seem bothered, patiently helping him move his arms and shoulders, or hold his fingers steady as they curl around a fork shakily. He’s not quite ready to sit up yet, or so Zitao says.
Nevertheless, by the end of the day Baekhyun’s exhausted, sinking back to the pillows gratefully when Zitao calls it a day.
“Hey, Zitao,” Baekhyun calls out as the boy stands from his chair, stopping all movements completely to listen to him. Baekhyun very nearly laughs, comparing him to a big cat (perhaps a panther, or a mountain lion when it senses danger) but he guesses it must be another thing of the people of the future. “Why am I not attached to any kind of life-support machines? Is this even a hospital?”
Zitao stands up straight and smooths down the folds in his jacket before he answers Baekhyun’s question. “This is more of a laboratory, actually. Every device and machine you need is already implanted straight into your body.”
Baekhyun gasps and his eyes widen in surprise but Zitao is already moving towards the door, footsteps silent. Humankind really have gone a long way.
“Tell me one more thing.” Baekhyun stops him just as Zitao’s hand rests on the door. He turns to Baekhyun again, eyes as blank and empty as the day Baekhyun met him. Throughout the whole day, Zitao had not cracked a smile, or shown any kind of emotion at all, actually. His voice had also been bland and it’s starting to really make Baekhyun question why.
“Why do you speak like that? Does everybody else talk like that too? With no feeling at all, I mean.”
The door slides open with a quiet ding and Zitao’s eyes bore into Baekhyun’s, cold and hard like black stones set on his handsome face. He subtly switches his feet to rest his body weight on the leg closest to the door, blinking once, before answering.
“Feelings? We have thrown those away a long time ago.”
Before Baekhyun can fully digest the statement, Zitao is out and the door have closed behind him, and Baekhyun is left to ponder over the sentence on his own.
The rest of the week continues with the same pattern. Baekhyun practices the motoric skills of his upper body while Zitao helps him, quietly chiding him when Baekhyun tries to overexert himself. He leaves Zitao’s cryptic statement for later, still a little uncomfortable around the boy to ask him the meaning of his sentence.
“My memories will come back, right?” Baekhyun asks worriedly, brows furrowing as he balances a bowl of fruits on his hands, muscles straining. He’s allowed to sit up now, leaning against a fort of pillows behind him.
“Don’t worry,” Zitao answers, once again playing with a hologram model of a molecule structure. He’s so focused on his work, but when the bowl tips in Baekhyun’s hands, he reaches out quickly and rights its position. “Your brain has been inactive for so long, give it a few months and you’ll be just like how you were.”
“Alright.” Baekhyun shakily places the bowl on the bedside table. He feels like there’s a wall in his brain, a wall that locks him out of the person he was before, and no matter how hard he pushes, it won’t yield. He’s not sure if he can trust Zitao’s words, but he has nothing else to hold on to.
Zitao puts his tablet computer away and straightens up as he faces Baekhyun fully, cocking his head a little to the side. Baekhyun raises his eyebrows questioningly as he pops a grape into his mouth.
“No more physical exercises for today. Now we’re going to get your memories back, little by little,” Zitao announces. Baekhyun’s face lights up excitedly and sits up straighter. “I can tell you’re getting restless.”
He rolls his eyes, huffing. “Good to know you realized.”
Zitao pays the sarcasm no mind. “I’m going to throw some information on you, and you’re going to trust me that they’re true. You might not think so for now, but with time, as your memories come back, you’ll know they are.”
“How... is this supposed to help me bring my memories back, just swallowing down all information you give me?”
“It’s supposed to jog it back.”
And the tone he uses signalizes the end of the argument.
“Now.” Zitao moves to sit on the bed facing Baekhyun, sweeping his hair out his eyes. “These will be information on your identity, the small ones at first, and then we’ll slowly build up to the bigger, more significant memories later.”
Baekhyun nods. Anything is fine, as long as it can help him tear down that wall in his head.
“Your name is Byun Baekhyun, born May 6th 1992, in Bucheon-shi, Gyeonggi-do,” Zitao starts, eyes searching Baekhyun’s face. “You lived with your parents, and your older brother, but then moved out when you were eighteen to go to college in Seoul.”
Zitao pauses, and Baekhyun frowns. The name of his birth city tugs at his memories, but it’s not strong enough. The faces of his family are still hazy and far away, as though there’s a thick mist between them.
“I don’t remember anything,” Baekhyun says dejectedly, sighing sadly as he twiddles his thumbs. But Zitao shrugs, reaching out to smooth down the folds on the front of Baekhyun’s shirt.
“It’s alright, it won’t come back easily,” he says, offering a bit of comfort. “Let’s try again.”
The day continues on with Zitao telling him things from his past; where he went to school, the color of the walls in his room, his liking to girl group music. But they don’t bring back any familiar feeling, and Baekhyun’s getting frustrated by the second. It’s as though he’s listening to a recount of someone else’s life, not his own.
“You did hapkido and played the piano and you --”
“Can we stop now? Please?” he cut across Zitao’s speech about Baekhyun’s interests (a long ago, far away Baekhyun, someone he doesn’t know), and he sighs and buries his face in his palms. There’s the beginnings of a headache pounding dully against the back of his head.
A hand rests on his knee, gentle fingers patting him from above the blanket covering his legs.
“Give it some time,” Zitao says. Although his actions are sympathetic, his voice remains blank. Baekhyun raises his head and frowns at him; Zitao holds his gaze steady, black eyes glinting.
“Tell me about this world,” Baekhyun asks.
Complete silence falls upon the room, and Baekhyun wonders if Zitao will answer his question, or deem him still too fragile for the information. Well, whether Zitao thinks he’s ready or not, Baekhyun will persist, anyway. Baekhyun’s eyes water as he refuses to lose in their staring contest, but Zitao breaks it first, blinking once before he straightens up.
“This world is different to the one you’ve lived in before,” he starts. “What humans dreamed of at your time, we have it now. Floating cities, buildings that ascend to the heavens, anything. We don’t even really need computers anymore: it’s installed into our brain.”
As Zitao speaks, Baekhyun’s mouth hangs open and his eyes light up in awe. He couldn’t believe it, not until he’s seen them himself. He wishes his body would work properly so he can go out.
“But I think there is one thing you might like to know,” Zitao says in that monotonous voice of his. “In this world, we have a fixed number of human population.”
He pauses, and the sentence takes a while to sink into Baekhyun’s brain. “Wait, what? Fixed number of --”
“Human population.” Zitao finishes his sentence with a nod. “Through extensive research, scientists have concluded that the earth has only enough resources to support four and a half billion humans. So we are keeping it at that exact number.”
“What - how?”
“After we discard emotions, we no longer have the want to, ah, mate, to say it crudely,” Zitao continues. “Babies are conceived externally, and only made when we need them. You see, we do not, or let anyone, make new human beings, and let the old die until we reach four and a half billion humans. And then, when it’s time for people to die, they get a choice: be cryopreserved, or die, in which case we make a new human baby.”
“But you can’t preserve a whole body without damaging it!” Baekhyun exclaims, shocked. “Well, not until me.”
Zitao nods solemnly. “Exactly. Which is why this discovery of yours is so important. Up until now, we have only preserved the brain of a person, and then build a new body to contain it.”
Baekhyun blanches. “Neuropreservation?” he stutters, trying to get words out but Zitao is unaffected, picking at his nails delicately on the edge of Baekhyun’s bed. “But then you’re denying lives to millions - maybe billions of people who could have been so great, who could have changed the world!”
“People grow wise with age,” Zitao says, not looking at Baekhyun and still inspecting his nails. “Why let them die and replace them with new ones we don’t know would benefit the world or not?”
Baekhyun doesn’t have an answer to that, but he’s still fuming, his rage threatening to consume him. “That is just wrong on so many levels.”
Zitao finally looks up, cocking an eyebrow. “Oh?”
They have a staring competition again, this time Baekhyun’s gaze is filled with anger while Zitao stares back fearlessly, challengingly. In the end, Baekhyun could only growl frustratedly and look away first, fisting the covers in his hands. They are silent again, and Baekhyun suddenly feels so tired, energy draining out of him fast.
“How do you throw away emotions?” Baekhyun asks, breaking the silence and rubbing his eyes as he yawns. “You can’t throw away emotions, unless...”
Once again, Zitao is silent before he answers, like he’s hesitant to comply. “When babies are born, a surgery is performed to take away the neurons that controls emotions, and then, until we stop growing, we take pills to keep it from growing back.”
Baekhyun closes his eyes, head falling back to the bed. He suspects it will be something along those lines, but to actually hear it still horrifies him.
“Why?” he whispers, afraid to look at Zitao’s empty, emotionless eyes.
“Because feelings get in the way.”
Baekhyun tries to picture Zitao had he lived in Baekhyun’s time. He imagines him as a boy who barely know about the world, heading out to college, as innocent as naive as Baekhyun was when he was nineteen. He’ll still be scary looking, but Baekhyun reckons under all that tough-guy act, he’s actually a soft-hearted panda bear. He pictures Zitao, smiling and laughing with eyes that shine with mirth, and lets the image coax him to sleep instead of Zitao’s robotic voice still talking beside him.
“Without feelings, you can’t be selfish and do what only benefits you, without feelings, you can fully work for the greater good. Without feelings... anything is possible.”
By the end of the first month, Baekhyun regains full use of his arms and upper body, the limbs working as well as they did a hundred years ago, even before the cancer. Sometimes Zitao comes with another person from the team that takes care of Baekhyun’s project, Luhan, who looks so young Baekhyun winces the first time he was introduced.
“Don’t let his physical looks fool you,” Zitao had said as Luhan bowed and smiled politely at Baekhyun. “He’s thirty eight years old, fourteen years ago we had to build him a new body because of an accident.”
“Aw why did you spoil the fun,” Luhan pouted and hit Zitao on the arm playfully. Zitao didn’t even flinch.
To be honest, Luhan unnerves Baekhyun. Unlike Zitao, he smiles and laughs and lets expressions show on his face, but they are all empty and hollow, just the same as Zitao. He’s an amazing actor; whereas Zitao doesn’t hide his inability to feel, Luhan masks them all perfectly, and if it weren’t for his blank, glassy eyes, Baekhyun would have forgotten completely he does not have feelings.
Today Luhan comes skipping in with some fruit, humming to himself. Baekhyun was glad to know that food had not changed much throughout the century, and he happily takes an orange from the basket Luhan sets on the bedside table.
“How are you feeling today, Baekhyun?” Luhan asks, plopping down on the end of Baekhyun’s bed. Although his emotions are fake, Luhan’s sunny disposition brightens the room anyway, and Baekhyun is glad for his presence.
“Alright,” Baekhyun answers, giving Zitao a quick nod as he enters the room. “What are we doing today?”
“Today you are going to start working on your legs,” Zitao answers, interestedly watching Baekhyun as he struggles to peel his orange. It’s still a little unripe, the skin clinging to the flesh of the fruit persistently. Luhan coos at Baekhyun’s frustrated expression before he takes the orange and peels it for him.
“Sorry, what were you saying?” Baekhyun opens his mouth to let Luhan pop a piece of the orange in, and Zitao narrows his eyes.
“Your legs. Luhan, stand up, he needs to be able to move them freely,” Zitao says, and Luhan makes a face at Zitao before standing up and pulling the covers away from Baekhyun’s lower body.
Zitao is as patient as always, helping him move his legs and feet while Luhan feeds him fruit and other snacks. Moving his legs is harder than his arms because they are they farthest from the central nervous system, therefore requiring more energy and concentration. At the end of the day, Luhan proposes that Baekhyun tries to stand up, and Zitao ponders on the idea, mulling it over in his head.
“Okay, but don’t overexert yourself,” Zitao says finally, and Luhan claps his hand happily. “Don’t you dare take a step, or do something stupid. This is really enough for today, but if you want to --”
“I want to!”
“Alright. Try to even out your weight on both feet. Lock your knees, don’t let them bend or you’ll fall. Although you won’t. I’ll be here to catch you.”
The phrase stirs something in Baekhyun’s memories, but it’s so faint and far away he thinks it’s just his imagination. Baekhyun nods eagerly at Zitao’s instructions and takes the hands Zitao offers to him, slowly lowering his feet to the floor one by one. He grips Zitao’s hand hard and pushes at the ground as hard as he can, pulling himself up.
Easier said than done; Baekhyun’s knees buckle and he falls back down on the bed with a surprised ‘oof!’. He blinks confusedly as Luhan chuckles, and Zitao takes his hands again.
“It’s okay. I didn’t expect you to do it the first time,” he says.
Baekhyun tries again, and this time, he manages to stay on his feet for three seconds, before he falls back down again. He cries out frustratedly, feeling pathetic. Zitao lays a hand on his shoulder and kneels down to Baekhyun’s eye-level. Baekhyun stares at him imploringly, as if Zitao can magically return his ability to stand, to walk, to run and jump like he did a century ago.
“Maybe we should leave this here today,” Zitao says quietly, fingers squeezing his shoulder.
“It was a stupid idea, I’m sorry,” Luhan sighs and runs a hand through his hair.
“No!” Baekhyun exclaims. Don’t they see how much he wants to be able to fully function again? “Let’s try again, three more tries!”
Zitao sighs. “Baekhyun--”
Baekhyun beams, grabbing Zitao’s hands as he gingerly tries to stand up again. On the third try, Baekhyun stays standing longer than before, and he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Although his knees are still buckling he’s holding up quite well, and Baekhyun grins up at Zitao. Zitao’s even taller than Baekhyun initially thought; he only reaches to the boy’s chin, and the height difference makes Baekhyun feel safe and protected.
But then Baekhyun laughs as he falls back to the bed, Luhan laughing along with him. Zitao, disgruntled, takes Baekhyun’s legs and dumps them on the bed, throwing the covers over them.
“That’s enough for today. Rest, now.”
Early the next day, Baekhyun is awoken by Luhan who shakes his shoulders and calls his name in an urgent voice. Baekhyun sits up confusedly, sleepily rubbing his eyes as Luhan beams and sets a box on his bed, winking at him mysteriously.
“What is that?” Baekhyun asks to Luhan who is unloading the contents of the box. He watches as Luhan takes out what looks like a small projector, some cables, and a headpiece.
“This,” Luhan lowers his voice for a dramatic effect, face mischievous. “Is a memory projector.”
Luhan rolls his eyes, and Baekhyun slaps his arm. “So basically you put this headpiece on, and it will connect to your brain to project your memories out.”
“It can do that?” Baekhyun whispers in awe, eyes wide. “Where did you get it?”
“Zitao’s office,” he answers proudly , starting to untangle the cables. “Looks like he’s been meaning to use this on you. Although probably not until later. He wants you to get your memories back yourself. I personally think that his methods are too slow, and that he should have just shown you this from the start.”
Baekhyun fingers the projector lens softly, grinning wide. This will help him return to the person he once was. “What memories does it show?”
“Oh, anything! Even baby memories you don’t even remember yourself!” he answers, grinning at Baekhyun. “Everything you see is recorded down in your brain, you see. It’s just that sometimes you forget where you store it. This will scour through every part of your brain to find memories.”
“Wow,” Baekhyun breathes. Luhan is setting up the projector, sitting it on top of a stack of books so it hits the empty stretch of wall opposite the bed just right. “”Wait, does Zitao know?”
Luhan scoffs, fitting the headpiece on Baekhyun’s head and fastening the straps with quick hands. “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. And you do want to get your memories back, right?” Without waiting for an answer, he then presses a few buttons and Baekhyun shivers, feeling a light electrical current pass across his brain and down his spine.
The projector starts, and the video playing is looking up a peach colored ceiling, with a baby mobile hanging close. Colorful, stuffed animals hang from the strings, rotating slowly as a small hand reaches out to it, tiny fingers curled into a tiny fist. Luhan, who had settled beside him whispers a quiet ‘wow’, but Baekhyun is frowning, tilting his head to the side. What memory is this?
And then the face of a woman comes into view on the screen, startling them both. She’s smiling wide, shoulder-length hair tucked behind her ears and there are wrinkles forming on her forehead, but she’s beautiful. Her eyes droop down towards the edges like Baekhyun’s does in a kind curve, and her face comes closer. And then the camera - or whatever it is that’s recording - shakes as she carries it up, twirling it once high in the air. It’s followed by a baby’s laughter that rings clear and bright, the same tiny hands stretching out to touch the woman’s face.
“This is your life, your memories, from your point of view,” Luhan says softly as the woman laughs and tucks the baby - baby Baekhyun - safe in her arms and starts singing him a lullaby. “This is your earliest memory.”
Something warm and powerful stirs inside Baekhyun’s chest as he studies the woman’s face, the happy lines on her cheeks and eyes as she nuzzles baby Baekhyun with her nose. He almost chokes on the feeling, as it overflows out of him and makes his body shake.
“That’s my mother,” Baekhyun whispers, and Luhan squeezes his hand gently. This time he knows not because Zitao or Luhan tells him; this time he knows from the feeling in his chest, the warmth that cocoons his whole being he associates with the woman’s face. And although he knows she’s long gone, the mere sight of her face still manages to bring him peace, to make him feel safe and protected and a little like the old Byun Baekhyun again.
They watch Baekhyun’s memories long after night has fallen, the both of them transfixed on the records of Baekhyun’s life. Baekhyun’s father comes into the picture, and so did his older brother, and the same warm feeling envelops him. Although it did take a while for Baekhyun to believe the boy who hid behind his father’s legs with a jealous gaze is his brother.
“I remember he was so annoying,” Baekhyun recounts happily as they watch a record of the family’s 1995 Christmas celebrations in his grandparents’ house. Baekhyun winces as his three year old self pulls on a golden bauble, toppling the Christmas tree over his little body. “He used to snatch my popsicles during summer and aim snowballs on my face even though our parents had said not to. But he taught me how to shave and drive and all the good hiding places in the park when our father wasn’t home, or was busy.”
Baekhyun laughs fondly as on the screen, his brother discovers him buried under the tree. He pulls Baekhyun out, a kicking, screaming toddler.
“Hey, Luhan look, look at him throwing me down to the sofa! Oh my god, he was the worst --”
Luhan is staring at him intently, head tilted to the side. Baekhyun’s voice falters as Luhan’s eyes searches his face, looking into his eyes as though they have answers for whatever questions are floating around inside his brain.
“How does it feel,” Luhan starts, voice quiet. He’s reverted back into someone like Zitao: pretenses gone, face void of emotions, eyes blank. Sometimes Luhan would slip up, times like this, when he doesn’t pretend he has feelings. Baekhyun hates it when it happens, because it makes him feel so lonely in this new world. “How does it feel... to have a family?”
Baekhyun is taken aback by the question, but he could see Luhan is genuinely curious. He blinks a few times, looking down at his clasped hands as his big family gathers around a table laden with Christmas dinner, wearing paper hats, and singing Christmas carols on the screen. It feels like an eternity ago.
“It’s the best feeling in the world, really,” he answers finally, shrugging. “Knowing that there’s always someone to back you up, to help pull you out of your hell hole, that you’re loved, unconditionally.”
Baekhyun’s brother married the girl of his dreams the year Baekhyun graduated from college. The sudden memory of him being his best man, standing with him at the altar as his bride glides up the aisle surprises Baekhyun, as well as the stab of jealousy he had felt for his sister-in-law even though he was an adult, twenty one already. His brother was his; his friend, his hand to hold and his rock to lean on when things get hard even though they never really showed how close they were.
She makes me happy, little brother, he had said, and how could Baekhyun stay mad?
They didn’t have much contact after his marriage. Baekhyun busy with his life and his brother with his own. There’s no use in regretting what’s gone and passed, and although Baekhyun hasn’t remembered much of his brother yet, the guilt and regret and longing washes over him in sudden waves, and he has to fist the bed sheets in his hands hard to sustain himself from crying.
“You love your family so much, don’t you?” Luhan’s voice is soft over four-year-old Baekhyun’s high pitched laughter as his brother hits him on the face with a handful of snow. Baekhyun almost forgets he’s also in the room, and when he looks up, Luhan’s smiling again, squeezing Baekhyun’s arm gently. Even though the smile doesn’t reach his eyes as always, it relieves Baekhyun to see it back on.
“I guess, yes.” Baekhyun turns his gaze back to the projector. His mother is feeding him apple pie. “Always have and always will.”
“Well, I’ll leave you to it then.”
Luhan gets up and ruffles his hair, telling him which buttons to press and which straps he has to pull to take off the headpiece when he’s finished, and then leaves without another word. Baekhyun watches his memories by himself for another fifteen minutes before the door opens again, and this time Zitao walks in. Quiet as a cat, he slips in and sits on the edge of Baekhyun’s bed, barely disturbing the covers.
“You are not angry?” Baekhyun asks without taking his eyes off the screen. It’s the family’s summer holiday in Jeju, and Baekhyun’s father had just hoisted his sons onto his shoulders and dumped them into the sea.
“I am not capable of anger.”
They leave the conversation at that.
It’s a few more hours into the night before Zitao finally clears his throat, posture straightening next to Baekhyun. He doesn’t look like a scientist, Baekhyun thinks offhandedly. He never did. And what’s with all that black.
Zitao’s voice is quiet, as if he’s afraid to disturb the peaceful state of the room even though there is no reason to. “There is... no use in this, unless you actually remember them as real events.”
“I do remember them,” Baekhyun snaps, annoyed. He refuses to look at Zitao’s eyes. He’s not entirely lying; some parts he does remember experiencing, while other events seem more like a movie than real life. But he won’t say that to Zitao, he’s trying to re-find himself (like a being a teenager all over again, he notes sourly), and Zitao will take the memory projector away if he tells the truth.
Zitao stares at him, a long, contemplative look, and Baekhyun feels uneasy.
“You are consumed by memories,” he almost-whispers, combing a lock of hair away from Baekhyun’s forehead with his fingers. Baekhyun turns to him, confused.
“It means.” Zitao presses the off button and the projector flickers off. Baekhyun makes a loud sound of protest but Zitao’s already undoing the straps of the headpiece. “It is time for you to rest, Baekhyun. Now, go to sleep.”
“Stop telling me what to do, you’re way younger than me. Respect your elders,” Baekhyun grumbles but lets himself be pushed down to the pillows anyway, the blankets tucked around him.
“Age doesn’t hold any significance in this world. Not when preservation is possible.”
“But you’ll let me use the projector again, right? Tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow,” Zitao agrees, carefully rolling the cables and then placing them in the box. “The memory projector is a delicate instrument, maybe after tomorrow you should give it a rest for a few days.”
Baekhyun is a little disappointed, but he nods anyway, snuggling back into the pillows. He watches as Zitao lowers the brightness of the lights, reducing it to a soft orange glow, before heading out. However he pauses at the doorway, body half in and half out of the room.
“I know this is strange for me to say, and that it’s a little overdue, but...” Zitao hesitates, and Baekhyun hums encouragingly. “Even though I didn’t know you in your previous life, in the name of science, I’m glad you’re back in the world.”
“Thanks,” Baekhyun says, a little taken aback, but pleased, nonetheless. He grins at Zitao and the boy uncertainly smiles back, an awkward pull of his facial muscles. It’s not as bright nor as natural as Luhan’s, but Baekhyun gets the message. He wants Baekhyun to feel welcome in this new world, that no matter what and how much has changed they are all fundamentally still humans.
Baekhyun’s chest feels warm as he laughs and waves Zitao off.
“Oh my god,” Baekhyun breathes, disbelieving. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my--”
“You can close your mouth, now,” Luhan says merrily, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he beams at Baekhyun’s dumbstruck expression. “Welcome to the year 2112!”
This morning Zitao had deemed Baekhyun strong enough and ready to go outside. It’s two months since Baekhyun had woken up and he can stand and walk and, if need be, run fairly well now. He was a little terrified when Zitao said it was time to go outside though, afraid of what he would find in this new world. But now all that fear seems a little silly compared to the awe he’s feeling right now.
They are taking him out during night time, the moon so large and close, a pale yellow orb hanging in the purple sky. But it’s so bright in the streets, if Baekhyun hadn’t known better, he would have thought it’s daytime. Floating balls of light illuminate the roads and sidewalks, the tall buildings themselves seem to be luminescent. Parts of the city are floating on air, concrete blocks ascending to the heavens as people flitted between the levels on glowing platforms.
Those who pass them doesn’t even look at him, which is strange because Baekhyun clearly doesn’t belong in this world. They meander on with their respective businesses, and Baekhyun watches them walk with slight awe. They don’t bump into each other, even when they’re not looking where they are going, and there’s an easy grace in their steps, silent as they commute through the crowds. Baekhyun can sense Luhan’s and Zitao’s eyes on him, both of them waiting for his reaction. Luhan’s hand is holding his while Zitao’s fingers are curled around Baekhyun’s elbow, holding him up.
The future is such a strange place, Baekhyun concludes.
“Why don’t any of them react to anything? Why are the people so...” Blank, he thinks. Cold, unfeeling, even more than Zitao and Luhan.
“That’s because they are not people,” Zitao answers, leaning down so he speaks directly to Baekhyun’s ear. “The technology we have today is advanced enough to create life-like human bodies, but not enough to create artificial human intelligence. They are robots.”
Baekhyun gasps and quickly covers his mouth with both hands, and beside him Luhan chuckles. They are so human-like it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between the robots and real humans. The way they move, the way they talk to each other has Baekhyun fooled. If it weren’t for the cold indifference they emit, Baekhyun wouldn’t even begin to suspect they are not humans.
“You see, Baekhyun, the world never sleeps. At night, when humans rest, the robots are let out and take over the cities,” Luhan explains, tugging a still-dumbfounded Baekhyun to a park bench. Zitao is following closely behind, and Baekhyun notices that the robots part to make way for them, not once questioning Baekhyun’s awkward, stumbling gait. “This is why we decided to take you out during night time. Even though we humans don’t have emotions anymore, we can still be pretty judgemental. It’s best to let you have a gentle start on the world.”
“But how the hell am I ever going to fit in?” Baekhyun asks, almost hysterical.
“We’ll help you!” Luhan answers cheerfully and Zitao nods, smiling that awkward smile of his. “You don’t have to worry about anything!”
And even though their faces show nothing but sincerity, Luhan and Zitao’s eyes are as dull as ever, lacking feeling, lacking depth. Baekhyun feels more alone than ever. His body is not a hundred percent optimal yet, and he’s starting to feel exhaustion weighing down on his shoulders. It’s made worse by the heavy feeling in his heart, the helplessness he feels. Baekhyun used to think he was so great and had so much impact and influence on the world, but now he feels so small and insignificant.
“Can we go back, now? I’m tired,” he says. Luhan nods and Zitao takes his arm, helping him up.
He knows nothing of this whole new earth, and has nothing but his memories of the past to hold on to. He’s not sure if he can even completely trust Zitao and Luhan’s words, but what other choice does he have?
Maybe they’re right though, he thinks. Maybe with time and patience, the gaping void of loneliness in Baekhyun’s chest will get better. He doesn’t know whether it would ever heal, but if it can’t, he’s going to make sure at least it covers over with a new life, and new hope.
He’s still trying to get his memories back. Everyday Baekhyun would allow a couple of hours to use the memory projector and try to relive the memories stored in his brain, memories he sometimes doesn’t even remember having. Sometimes Zitao or Luhan would accompany him, but it’s mostly Zitao. A silent presence beside Baekhyun who’s always ready with a warm chest or a box of tissues when the memories get too much, which Baekhyun is thankful for.
But there’s a new routine now. Everyday after he wakes up and every night before he goes to sleep, two people with masks comes to take a sample of Baekhyun’s blood. Zitao had explained that they are looking for damage caused by Baekhyun’s breakthrough formula, to see if it is fit for commercial use. Once a week they would also run him through a couple of brain tests, some Baekhyun recognizes, some newer, advanced ones he doesn’t. Baekhyun would always come back from these tests exhausted and drained, aching to his bones.
“I’m scared,” he confesses sleepily to the front of Zitao’s shirt, holding on to the fabric in his fist harder. He’s taken to sleeping curled up against Zitao’s chest nowadays, and wouldn’t let the boy leave until Baekhyun’s truly asleep. The feeling of being safe and protected in someone’s arms is a fuzzy familiarity Baekhyun doesn’t know what to associate with yet, but he supposes he’ll find out, sooner or later. He’s getting close to his teenage years in the memory lane.
“Of what?” Zitao mumbles to his hair, hand stroking Baekhyun’s back up and down. The gesture is gentle and affectionate but Baekhyun knows Zitao only does it to calm Baekhyun. The thought stings more than it should.
“That the formula wouldn’t work. That my century of work would be unravelled and scrapped in the blink of an eye because I screwed up.” Baekhyun closes his eyes, and breathes in Zitao’s scent. Clean linens, new paper, something bitter like the generic sterile smell of hospitals. “I always screw up.”
Zitao shifts so Baekhyun can fit more comfortably against him, head tucked underneath Zitao’s chin. “You’re one of the greatest scientist the world has ever seen, Baekhyun. How can you say that?”
Baekhyun shrugs, yawning. “Insecurity, I guess. You wouldn’t know.”
Zitao doesn’t have a reply for that. The room is silent again, the sounds of the world outside muffled by the thick glass of the windows. But they’ve turned off the lighting in the room, and colorful specks of light from outside dance in through the half-closed blinds, creating shadows across their forms. It’s too quiet in here, out there as well. The future is just that: a silent world.
Baekhyun keeps his eyes closed as his fingers fiddle with the button of Zitao’s shirt, sleep taking over his mind now, and Baekhyun is most talkative when he’s sleepy. “Do you know, I keep thinking that if you had lived in the world I was born in, you would be this cute, spoiled kid no one could ever say no to? That even though you’re scary-looking your heart is soft and I might just love you.”
Zitao runs a hand through Baekhyun’s hair, not saying anything. Baekhyun snuggles closer, and continues to ramble in his half-asleep state.
“We could go out on dates to the amusement park, have ice cream afterwards, you being adventurous and mixing your ice cream with mine to create a new flavor. You’ll drag me to those freakishly high roller coasters and make me ride them with you even though you know I’m terrified of them --”
“Baekhyun, I’d never make you do something you don’t want to do.”
“-- and then we can go boating in a lake, your stupid attempts at being romantic and setting up a picnic for our anniversary failing when a fox stole the sandwiches you left at the bank.”
Zitao is holding Baekhyun at an arm’s length now, frowning and confused. “Baekhyun, wait. Where did you get these scenarios from? This is not normal, are you remembering something?”
“Zitao, don’t you ever wonder what it’s like to feel?” Baekhyun’s not even really awake, by now it looks like he’s entered some sort of trance, like he’s drunk although Zitao is sure he hasn’t consumed anything alcoholic at all. Maybe it’s the effect of the vitrification formula, maybe Baekhyun’s brain is breaking down under all the pressure of not remembering and forced to live in an entirely new environment. His voice is starting to turn into something like choked sobs now, chest heaving as sudden tears rolls down his face. It only serves to confuse Zitao even more.
“Luhan sometimes wonders, sometimes he asks me. Don’t you wonder, Zitao? To love and feel such longing for a person you’ll only just anger yourself? Make you feel like you’re so helpless, and you know it only destroys you from the inside but there’s no stopping it. Do you know what it’s like to feel like that, Ch-- Zitao?”
Zitao has completely pulled away, watching with wide eyes as Baekhyun curls back down under the blankets. His eyes are scrunched up tight as though he’s trying to staunch the pain of an internal wound, and Zitao stands there, not knowing what to do until Baekhyun finally calms himself, and falls asleep.
After a while, Zitao leans down and wipes away the tear tracks on Baekhyun’s cheeks with his thumb, and Baekhyun unconsciously nuzzles into the touch. Zitao’s hand is trembling.
Zitao is still growing, he’s only nineteen, so everyday he still has to take the medication to suppress the emotion neurons from growing back.
But today he hesitates as he holds the little white bottle in his hand, thumb tucked underneath the rim of the lid about to pop it open. Baekhyun’s face flashes through his mind and he grips the bottle tighter, the tip of his nails turning white. The pills inside rattle as he puts it back into the top drawer of his bedside table.
Just to understand Baekhyun better, he tells himself.